Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Returning to Faerie


Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” (JRR Tolkien "On Fairy Stories")

Faerie is a place where that direction is North if you want it to be North. Where time is not merely relative but could be random and or even a choice. Faerie is a place where you are what you say you are, where magic is needed to navigate. And where peril lurks in every seemingly innocent corner, where your words hold more than mere communication but shape you and the world around you. This is Xanth. 

In this world, something’s name matters beyond mere identification. And while there is a true name to everything, those mundane names we choose for ourselves, or have thrust on us, still have power. If I call you a pig, and I have power, then you become more hog-like. And if you adopt the name Wolf, you must be ready when the pack leader arrives. Faerie is not a place where magic exists, Faerie is a place that is magic. It is not shaped by physics and geology (or even economics and sociology) but by the intersection of our magics, of the things we call ourselves, the names we give to others, our beliefs, loves and rages. There is truth but it is your truth, my truth, the tree’s truth. And power lies in understanding these truths. 

If you find yourself in Faerie, and we all do in the end, you are in a place where nothing much makes sense, where like the White Queen, you can believe impossible things, where sitting on a rock without its consent offends the rock. In Faerie, streams might run uphill because that is what their spirit desires. Tomorrow that same stream might sit motionless as if in a grand sulk, maybe a creature upset it by saying it should run downhill. In Faerie most of us are lost. 

Not just lost because you don’t know the way – after all if I say that way is North, it is North – but lost because there is no anchor for your being. Everything you say is contrary, everything you do has a consequence, you have no right to truth or science or heavenly guidance. Navigation requires a negotiation with every path (you may say it is headed North but you need also to persuade the Eastward-heading path of this truth), each encounter demands an accommodation with another’s understand of the real. Open that door and walk through without agreeing first that it will take you into the inn? You may end up in a tea shop. Or worse, a prison cell. 

Once upon a time humans understood this magic. We looked at a wood and didn’t see just trees, birds, moss and mushrooms. We saw the whole wood, we saw its spirit and the spirits of the trees, birds and mushrooms. And the wisest among us saw still further, they saw the weave of the world, the way in which all things are interconnected, how the intersection of these things, their actions, their choices, creates events. We better understand love, pain, anger, even death as part of a universe than as specific events that happen to individual things. 

At some point, perhaps that time we foolishly call The Enlightenment, humans walked away from magic and walked towards a world of certainty. A world where truth is given to us in the pages of a science book, a world where directions are definite, and where rocks don’t get upset if you sit on them. Now a glimpse into tomorrow tells us that uncertainty is returned. Not that rocks are upset, but we’ve discovered that what we call things, and what things call themselves, matter more than we thought. Our passage through life is shaped again by the way in which different truths intersect rather than by a proscribed set of precise names. 

The result is that we have taken a step into Faerie. Nothing is certain, nobody can be trusted, things aren’t what they seem. It is again a world of peril where each direction, each event and every encounter must be negotiated. We have, however, forgotten how to navigate in Faerie resulting in lost folk, angry folk and a dangerous spirit. To move on we need to relearn the old ways. Or turn away from magic again.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

If we want a better Parliament we need more MPs with second jobs

I was, at the start of my working life, a Conservative Party agent. This began with a training posting in Old Bexley & Sidcup then election agent in North Luton for John Carlisle and finishing in York where the profession and I parted company. During this period I worked in the constituencies of three different MPs - the first a former prime minister with all the pomp we assume goes with that honour, the second a backbencher noted for trenchant right wing opinions, and the last a non-entity who I didn't get along with at all. But my story isn't the point here, the point is how these three MPs worked.

None of these MPs had their own constituency office. Maybe this will come as a shock to those involved in today's politics who see MPs with generously staffed constituency offices as well as a Westminster office. The three MPs had a London office. In Ted Heath's case a fine corner suite in the old Norman Shaw building, in John Carlisle's case little more than a desk in an alcove in Westminster Palace. Heath had a secretary, a full time resercher and, usually, an intern whereas the other two MPs made do with just a London secretary.

Today, according to a review by UCL, there are over 3,500 people employed by MPs which amounts to five each. Add the costs of high street constituency offices to house some of these people and there's a huge investment of taxpayers' cash in supporting MPs in doing their 'vital work'. Are we better governed as a result of this huge increase in staffing and support for MPs? Do MPs perform better? Do these employees allow the MP to focus more on their primary role? Or are these offices and workers mostly directed to the vital and essential priority of getting the MP re-elected?

As an ageing cynic, I lean largely to the view that most of this support is unnecessary and that its existence distracts MPs from their main function rather than allowing them to focus on that role. The fine office encourages the MP to spend time in the constituency - a place where other than being its representative that MP has no function. And this is the biggest problem, MPs have become glorified caseworkers chasing round after those who arrive in their surgeries or who contact their office. You'll hear MPs bragging about how much casework they do, how their advice surgeries are cramming with the desparate and deprived, and how they are worn thin by the endlessness of their job.

In my jaundiced opinion all of this is because MPs aren't doing their job, they are doing the jobs of others - local councillors, council officers, the CAB, advice workers in the benefits service and a host of others whose role is to deal with the public. The role of an MP is really very simple - because all the people can't (and won't) cram into one place to make the decisions necessary to direct government, we choose, by election, a representative to do that job for us. So the MP's job isn't to swan around Basingstoke or Barnsley being "the MP" but to be in London when Parliament is sitting so as to represent those people in Basingstoke or Barnsley. The MPs I worked for in the 1980s, for all that they fussed about the place they represented, understood this role. I am not sure that today's members do.

It is for this reason that the latet iteration in the 'sleaze' debacle is important. We're being told that MPs should "prioritise" Westminster but this doesn't mean getting rid of the constituency offce but rather that an MP shouldn't have any outside interest or activity that might be called a "job". I think this is nonsense and that doesn't make me an apologist for sleaze but rather someone who thinks that the job of representing Barnsley or Basingstoke isn't a full time job.

Parliament sits for about 150 days in a typical session (which isn't exactly a year but we're going to treat it as such). So in any given year MPs have to make themselves available in London so as to take part in debates and votes for three weeks out of five during the year (although typically the de facto Parliamentary week is three days plus two half days alowing MPs to "spend time in their constituencies"). Even with the current structure of the parliamentary day, it is clear that MPs have ample time to engage in outside activities, paid or unpaid. And being able to do this allows for people to carry on other important work while serving as an MP. I consider that this would make for a better parliament that one filled with people who spent more than half their time chasing casework and campaigning to get elected again.

I am tempted to propose we go even further - reducing the number of weeks sitting to 14 but using the full five days (so 70 days rather than the current 150) and paying MPs an honorarium rather than a salary. This would encourage MPs to have a main job rather than seeing being an MP as a career instead of a noble piece of public service. I consider that MPs continuing a job as a doctor, accountant, lawyer, academic or bus driver would grant parliament a greater degree of depth and understanding than is the case today. And MPs would have less time to waste on gossiping to lobby journalists or plotting assorted political coups and other nonsense.

I don't consider it wrong that Geoffrey Cox and David Lammy earn good money for a few hours a week lawyering or radio presenting, I consider that this activity probably makes them better representatives than the MP who spends every hours god sends fussing over why the Council got Mrs Jones' housing benefit wrong. I like that Dougas Ross, injury allowing, runs the line at Scotish Premier League games and that Ian Blackford maintains his links to City of London financiers - this makes them better MPs. And it is great that Ben Bradley and Dan Jarvis stayed on as MPs while being respectively a councty council leader and a regional mayor - again this makes them better MPs.

We moved a long way from "did Owen Paterson break the rules on parliamentary interests and influence" to saying this is because some MPs with highly valued skills continue to profit from those skills. Of course we need rules (and MPs who break them should face sanctions) but that doesn't make it remotely sleazy for an MP to carry on as a director of his family's business, write books, sing in a choir, keep pedigree angora or any other of the myriad of interesting activities - some paid some not - that make for a more interesting and rounded person. Better still, these activities bring new, interesting and informed perspectives into the actual job of an MP - representing us by discussing, debating and deciding on the laws, regulations and activities of our government.


Thursday, 4 November 2021

Pitchforks and torches - thoughts on public meetings (and the need for more public debate)

"Over there, that's where they are..."

Simon Evans, comedian and thought leader, writes in Spiked about the need for more public debate.

A good public meeting is electric. You listen, throughout, not only to get informed, affirmed or provoked, but also to be able to coherently respond when the ball comes your way. To not make a fool of yourself, and hoof it over the bar, or repeat points already nailed. To identify a leaping-off point to launch your chosen attack. A public-meeting audience may not always be woke, but it will certainly be awake.
The public meeting used to be the central feature of political debate, the idea that elections are about "the hustings" persists even though elections have now become a sort of passionless operation driven by print-outs produced by data analysts staring at glowing screens in the campaign office. The public meeting died. It didn't die because candidates stopped holding them but because the public stopped going - the prospect of an evening in a draughty village hall required a real commitment to the cause when there was a nice warm living room, telly and comfort back home.

In 1983, I acted as election agent to John Carlisle, then MP for Luton West and soon to be MP for North Luton (a consequence of boundary changes rather than carpet bagging). There's a sort of formula to an election campaign, a set of things that you do that, back then, included an introductory leaflet, an election address, a canvassing schedule and some public meetings. We booked those meetings, one at the Beech Hill Conservative Club in central Luton and the remainder at suitable venues in Flitwick, Westoning, Pulloxhill and Barton-le-Clay. About twenty hardy folk turned out to the meeting in Luton while the other venues struggled to attract double figures even if you included me as agent, the constituency chairman and John's driver.

These events were supplemented by the hustings debate organised by a local church or community organisation. When I stood for election in Keighley, the biggest of these was at Christchurch on The Grove in Ilkley. Us candidates dutifully turned out to face questions from the public, perhaps 50 or so folk including, of course, our supporters all prompted with questions and interjections. The first question was about disability and Anne Cryer responded with a detailed, informed answer. I waffled through some sort of response because (shocking I know) I hadn't rehearsed the manifesto position about the subject. It wasn't until the count that I discovered the questioner was Anne's campaign organiser.

As an agent or candidate these events were something to be endured. They probably, unless your candidate does something really stupid, have little impact on the outcome of the election and they occupy the candidate for a day or two during the campaign. As every election agent knows, the main thing to do with a candidate is to keep them busy while you do the important job of getting them elected. Public meetings fill that gap: until the public stops turning out at which point the candidate looks at the agent and says "there's no point in doing this" and orders a stall on the high street or some sort of daft stunt involving balloons and nurses.

When you get elected, you get to do another sort of public meeting, the sort of meeting the public does turn out for, the sort of meeting that meant I couldn't find a space to park my car after a day driving to Milton Keynes and back. The meeting organised by the Parish Council to oppose something (the cause of my parking problem was such a meeting - opposing proposals for a landfill in Cullingworth). It won't surprise you to know that, as a local councillor, I've been to a lot of these meetings, they are a great way to stir the voters' passions and to look, as a politician, like you're on their side and, even better, leading the charge against the evil developers, planners or council (sometimes all of these things).

For a period I was an important councillor and this meant being, in part, responsible for those evil decisions that the Council has to make. One of these decisions involved the demolition and redevelopment of some council housing in a place called Ravenscliffe. If you were to hear me say "I'm going to a public meeting in Ravenscliffe", you might shrug and think nothing. Saying such a thing in Bradford would get you responses like "do you have a police escort" or "when is the funeral?". Ravenscliffe is the sort of abandoned peripheral estate where bored youth start fires, ring 999, and then throw stones at the fire engine. We were going there to tell them we were knocking their houses down.

Along with the Assistant Chief Executive, David Kennedy and a couple of brave housing officers, we attended the meeting. The event was lively. We stood in a tatty community room inside a sort of semi-circle of local residents and gently explained how knocking down some of their houses to create a new development site on which to put replacement homes was absolutely the only - and right - thing to do. There were shouts of protest and the semi-circle appeared to close in a little. We explained they'd be rehoused locally, that they'd get first dibs on the new houses, yes, the removal expense would be covered, no the council wasn't profiteering. After what felt like ten hours of grilling (but was, in truth, only an hour) we concluded promising more information and meetings as the project progressed.

In his article Simon Evans tells us a little about the stand-up comedian's relationship with his or her audience:
As a stand-up, one of the great tricks of the craft is to give the impression that your listeners are indeed in a two-way street, enjoying a chat – albeit one that it just so happens you are currently dominating. This keeps audiences much more alert than anything resembling a sermon would. And while hecklers are often treated as little better than vandals, often all they have failed to decode is this flattering deception, the lie that the performer is chatting with, not at, them and might give way at any time.

This made me smile because, even as a mere local councillor, I knew that I wanted a public meeting about the library closure or the housing development because I could manipulate the public meeting in a somewhat similar manner to the stand-up comedian (albeit without anything resembling a joke). Sensible developers and councils want to do a consultation, to set up boards and spend a whole afternoon in the village hall responding directly to any member of the oublic who drops in. Sensible councillors want a public meeting because that way you can stir people up, announce the intention to march on the town hall with pitchforks and torches.

Public meetings - all the trappings of participatory democracy - are wonderful things but are also entirely open to manipulation by the loud, informed and organised. This is the milieu beloved of the far left (and where those rare beasts still exist, the far right), the land populated by Saul Alinky's community organisers. It is a world just as reverential to sacred cows and filled with received wisdom as any staged debate. And it is a world where people like me can press the right buttons, get a cheer and walk off into the sunset with a well-slapped back knowing you've farmed a few more votes.

Don't get me wrong, Simon Evans is right to call for lots more public debate and for lots more spaces where regular folk get to say something, to contribute. But let's not get too wrapped up in the idea that participation should somehow replace representation or that public forums aren't readily shaped by those with either authority or oratory on their side. Once we understand this limitation and recognise that the purpose of public debate isn't to answer the question but to shine light on and give air to an issue, to escape from the careful positionings of those data analysts and comms advisors. You don't want people to end the meeting pitchfork in hand heading for Westminster but in the 'Rose & Crown' with friends old and new saying "I enjoyed that".


Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Government of the NIMBY, for the NIMBY, by the NIMBY


We have a housing crisis, an energy crisis, a social care crisis, a spluttering economy and an inefficient health service. Our transport system creaks, cities clog up with cars and attempts to make them more pleasant quickly fade away. We can't sort out our prison system, provide better care for looked after children and make the UK a genuinely fair and supportive place for refugees. Our rubbish piles up in the wrong places and we dump it overseas on poorer communities. Small businesses struggle with recruitment, tourist places can't find the staff and businesses can't expand.

There's a simple reason explaining all this - the NIMBY. We live in a society where any form of personal inconvenience or reponsibility has to be removed by government. No you can't build those new houses there - build them somewhere else. No I won't let you drill for gas near our village - there might be lorries and smell, we don't want that. No we won't pay for our own care from the 100s of 1000s in property assets we own because we've stopped new housing - get workers to pay with their taxes. No you can't pedestrianise the high street - I want to park right next to the shop. I won't let you build a cycle way or a bus lane, it might add 90 seconds to my journey. What do you mean, you want to allow people to use the street to eat dinner when I might want to drive my car down it twice a year?

Don't build that new prison to replace the overcrowded, violent mess of a jail in the city - it might disturb some birds that we're told live there. And we won't let you build a bail hostel or a children's home near us - think of all the burglary, the anti-social behaviour. This is a nice community - this sort of thing won't fit it. Asylum seekers? We're going to march and petition to stop them you know, we don't want dark skinned foreigners round here - no to a refugee centre!

I don't care what happens to the rubbish that I put in my bin, the bin the council empty every fortnight. Except that you can't build an incinerator that will put that rubbish to good use by generating electricity. And I don't want a wind farm on the hill up there either. Or a nuclear power station. Or any kind of generation. That can go somewhere else. What do you mean, of course I expect the lights to go on when I flick the switch.

This is a nice market town you know. Building some old people's flats in the town centre is wrong. That's where we want to park our cars so we don't have to walk more than 50 yards to do our shopping and meet our friends over a cup of coffee. Dump the old people on the council estate. And we don't want other sorts of flat either, especially not affordable ones for the sort of workers who serve us coffee. Now I'm here we should pull the ladder up and ban second homes rather than build new houses for our growing workforce.

I know that the brewery and the clothing people want to expand. But that means more ugly sheds and that will spoil the view from the fish wharf where we sit with our glass of pinot gris and a crab salad. So stop it. There's an industrial area ten miles inland, they can go there, much more fitting. What do you mean, where are the jobs for the kids growing up? We didn't start here you know, we worked hard, didn't buy expensive coffee and avacado on toast - kids of today expect everything on a plate.

A new road? Absolutely, I'll be able to get through town a minute quicker. But just a minute? Where are you putting the road, it can't go there, that'll mean more houses and more traffic, it'll spoil some "Grade One" farmland, upset a couple of badgers and annoy an owl. Plus my house value might drop, not having that. A railway station? Think of the traffic, more congestion. Can't people drive into the town to get the train. And we don't want one of those bus schemes - make my journey to the farm shop a minute longer...

On and on it goes and the crises get worse. We have a housing crisis because you won't let people build houses near you. We have an energy crisis because you opposed fracking, campaigned against waste-to-energy, fought wind farms and stopped new nuclear. We have a social care crisis because you think your housing assets are sacrosanct. We have sluggish economy because you won't allow cities and towns to grow. And we dump our rubbish in poor countries because you think using waste as fuel is smelly and unpleasant. We can't reset our health system because you'll oppose closing hospitals and oppose building new hospitals to replace them.

We truly are a nation of NIMBYs. A nation convinced that everything can be sorted out - just somewhere else. 


Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Online or face-to-face? (This is about D&D not work, silly)


In the real world, the one where I play Dungeons & Dragons, there is a debate going on about returning to playing in person. Prior to the Great Plague, we would meet up at Geek Retreat or in the back room of a pub to roll dice and explore the stranger recesses of our minds through the medium of a role playing game. All that stopped when the plague struck - the pubs were shut and Geek Retreat retreated into its shell (there to pray that, soon - please gods soon - they could reopen and hopefully not go bust).

The playing of Dungeons & Dragons migrated online. There were already plenty of tools and resources available for playing games online, the Discord platform provided a text, video and audio space for gaming, and various *virtual table tops* (VTTs) came into their own. D&D had already seen the creation of D&D Beyond as an online resource and all the game resources - books, modules, character creation and dice - could be found there. We began playing, then playing and chatting, then playing some more using these online spaces and resources (indeed folk also made use of Zoom and Teams and Google to play games). It worked fine, especially as a lot of gamers were literally cooped up at home on furlough.

But now the pubs are open, Geek Retreat is again filled with people playing games of all sorts and there's no need to carry on playing online is there? Just as everyone is going to go back to working in the office, we'll all be wandering down to the local games space there to play D&D (or indeed other games that had also migrated online). Thing is it's just not so simple.

Firstly there are people who remain concerned about the risk of catching the virus (not everyone is super healthy) and such people want to make absolutely sure everything is OK out there - you and I considering things to be safe probably isn't a good enough argument. Slowly such folk are returning to the world outside the house but if you've spent best part of 18 months fretting about catching a virus that might kill you a bit of hesitancy is understandable.

Next there are those who find online to be a better place all round. This isn't about being anti-social but rather that gaming online benefits from the development of online tools for game creation, the ability to make use of the vast resource of the worldwide web in creating your games, and the chance to be more flexible about location and time. It may seem a bit *teenage basement dweller* but there's a lot to be said for online systems when some folk are less comfortable with the "Theatre of the Mind" or with building real world game spaces Blue Peter-style from cardboard, sticky tape and washing up liquid bottles (or in the enthusiastic embracing of technology that gaming always features, using 3D printers). There's also the whole parallel hobby of making and painting *minis* that a lot of players, pre-plague shied away from.

I get the sense, however, that most players want to get back to playing in person. There's something different about the rolling of dice, the chat has a different dynamic, and the occasion is somehow more friendly and engaging when you're sat together round a table. Just as some argue how a meeting face-to-face gives a richer and more granular outcome than one on Zoom, so an in-person D&D game feels to have more nuance, engagement and variation than one held online. And this is despite the creative advantages we've gained from playing online.

Just as we'll see new ways of working emerging from the work-from-home experiment forced on us by the Great Plague, so we'll see new practices emerge in role playing games. The first of these will be, given the ubiquity of phones and tablets, the use of online tools during in person games. The resources of D&D Beyond don't exclude rolling real dice but they do make for tidier (and probably more accurate) character sheets and a swifter access to rules, items and spells. Alongside this there's no reason why, especially if you're playing at home rather than in a pub or gaming cafe, you can't use aspects of the VTT using a TV monitor.

In campaign settings the game is enhanced by having on-line and in-person melded - chat (text or audio), moderated by a DM, can help develop player characters and move the game forward more smoothly than in the pre-pandemic world of every downtime action by players being roleplayed in real time during game sessions.

To be serious for a minute, this exploration of how my D&D campaign might evolve is important to the debate about whether we should go back to the office or stay working from home. Truth be told, framing the issue as a simple binary choice - you play in person or you play online - doesn't make sense. Both environments add to the game experience so we want both to continue. The same goes for the work environment. Dragging everyone back to the office because you think they're all skiving (perhaps by playing D&D, who knows) sounds like the smack of firm management but, in doing this, you might well be throwing valuable babies out the window with the bath water.

Anyway, I'll be playing online on Friday, in person on Monday and who knows on Wednesday. There's also an in person alternate Sunday game to enjoy. And I can log into a Discord channel to share jokes, banter and interminable debates about what the RAW means for polymorph (or similar). This sort of melded gaming is where we're headed and I hoping it will add even more fun to a game that was already great fun.


Monday, 5 July 2021

NIMBYs gonna NIMBY: How opponents of housing operate


Arguments against new development, especially housing development, are usually entirely selfish. This isn’t to say that concern for our self-interest isn’t entirely normal but rather that NIMBY arguments are seldom presented in terms of selfish interest but rather use conservative emotion around heritage, environment and ecology mixed with assumptions that the business of building things is driven entirely by greed and speculation.

Over the last 70 years we have constructed a planning system prioritising reasons to stop development while, as with the current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), proclaiming a presumption in favour of development. If you peek inside the lid of the planning system, what you’ll find is thousands – yes thousands – of specific policy reasons why development should be stopped. These range from broadly sensible ideas about protecting flood plains and sustaining historic rights of way through to policies that make almost no sense at all such as the one preventing the use of a former velvet mill site in Denholme for a development of homes for social rent.

We have policies designating land as important in dozens of ways – heritage, ecology, special landscape, archaeology. We fuss about trees, orchids, badgers, butterflies and bats – let’s not overlook assorted amphibians. Anyone who has lived in (or in my case adjacent to) a listed building will have had the joy of dealing with planners - made even more fun when your listed building is surrounded by protected trees and located next to a conservation area.

If you want to oppose development, all of these policies can be brought to bear (one of my favourites is the one about being near a World Heritage Site – in Saltaire this is preventing the replacement of long derelict greenhouses with some new homes). And, as you arrive at the planning committee, you can be assured that the members are keen to find reasons to prevent development – after all politicians are in the business of votes and developers don’t have votes, future residents don’t have votes, NIMBYs do.

We are in the middle of the first real national debate about planning and its purpose since the current system was introduced in the 1940s. And this had meant that NIMBYs, instead of organising locally to oppose development, have attempted to define their position (other than we want to preserve the value of our homes and stopping new homes is the surest way to achieve this end). There are four aspects to the NIMBY position:

1.      The housing crisis is not the result of the planning system.

2.      NIMBYism is about protecting nature.

3.      There is enough housing and land for housing already.

4.      Reformed planning will mean the “wrong houses in the wrong places”.

NIMBYs are aided in each of these objectives by people who are not NIMBYs. Planners, or at least the bodies that represent planners like the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), repeatedly say the problem doesn’t lie with their members or the planning system but with the land market and especially development behaviour around land banking and build out rates.

Local councils and their national body the Local Government Association (LGA) have also argued strongly that they are granting lots of permissions that don’t get developed showing, they claim, that the problem doesn’t lie with councils and planners but with developers.

NIMBYs have latched onto these arguments using them as the basis for their support of a planning system that, most of the time, favours existing homeowners. They go further by arguing that the objective assessment of housing need is unnecessary and that local authorities should determining planning applications purely based on local considerations. To move away from planning committees making essentially arbitrary decisions based on short term local political considerations would, they argue (and the LGA and RTPI support them in this argument) represent the undermining of local democracy. It is every homeowner’s right to be able to prevent development by lobbying a local planning committee.

The problem is that only 2% of the public ever engage with the planning system. This 2% generate headlines in the local paper with their carefully painted protest signs and marches by school children roped in to oppose developing housing in which they might live some time. Photographs of stern looking residents perhaps accompanied by a local councillor or an MP seem common enough (I’ve posed for a few) but the reality is that the planning system works well for the few organised opponents and badly for the thousands of people looking for housing.

But the argument here is a false one. Nobody is saying that the planning system is the sole cause of our housing crisis (low interest rates, rising wages and immigration all, for example, have an effect) but to say, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the lack of housing supply isn’t substantially down to planning is wrong. Everything about the system is sclerotic, from how it’s resourced through to how long local plans take to draw up (Bradford started with its plan in 2008 and still doesn’t have a plan with agreed housing allocations in 2021).

The LGA point to the number of permissions granted and tell us that over a million homes haven’t been built despite getting those precious permissions. As plenty of people have pointed out, this misrepresents the idea of a planning permission. There’s a site, old railway sidings, in Cullingworth that is now on its third permission in the last 20 years. It remains undeveloped – perhaps because the permission granted is unviable, maybe because the landowner wants too much money. In Bradford alone there are hundreds of acres of brownfield sites that, at some point or another, have had a permission granted for development only to sit there undeveloped.

Then we’re told that this is because the owners are sitting on the land as a speculation, knowing that its value will rise because, you know, that’s what happens to land. Developers are greedy we’re told again and again. But these sites are not owned by developers, indeed their owners are often actively looking for developers (at least for a year or so after getting the permission). The problem is that the developers also know that people (their customers) don’t want houses in run down inner cities so development of, for example, the former Drummond Mills site on Lumb Lane in Manningham doesn’t happen because it is impossible to build homes there for less than the local selling price. If it costs £100,000 to build a house and a house the same size round the corner is selling for £75,000, you’ll probably not bother developing.

Planning permissions are a necessary but, in many cases, not sufficient reason for development to happen. Big housing developers bank land to maintain a pipeline of work for the business, but they are not applying for permissions then sitting on that permission until it lapses, to do so would be a waste of that business’s limited resource (time and money). A much bigger problem is how determined opposition (often surprisingly well funded) can delay a development for literally decades.

Meanwhile, out in the leafy suburbs, a different alliance is formed between NIMBYs and green activists. As one, Ros Coward from The Rainforest Alliance proclaimsNimby should no longer stand for “not in my back yard” but “nature in my back yard”. In a Guardian article, Coward sets out how she is opposing new housing in Wandsworth because there’s a poplar tree she likes. And she goes on to describe how all the NIMBY campaigns up and down the country, far from being the actions of selfish homeowners, are run by people whose main concern is nature. We’re told about the Community Planning Alliance an umbrella group for 460 local campaign groups. Each one probably has a story to tell about some trees, or bats or badgers. There will be talk about chalk streams, ancient woodland, flowers, butterflies and orchids. The word biodiversity will be littered across hundreds of letters to planning officers, MPs and councillors.

According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government residential property accounts for 1.1% of England’s land use. Add in garden and suburban marginalia and we reach 5.9% of the land as housing. Nearly 85% of England is, in planning terms, undeveloped – agriculture, forest, heath, moor and marsh. To build 3 million houses at suburban densities (35/ha) would need about 75 square km. Sounds like a lot until you realise that this is 0.06% of England’s land area.

Even if all those 3 million homes were built on green belt, we would need less than 5% of that precious land. And nobody at all is proposing that all of England’s housing need could or should be met on green belt. If, for arguments sake, we assume that the use of green belt is double the use of other land (meaning roughly a third of the new homes would be on former green belt land) the amount of the green belt needed to build those homes represents just 1.5% of the total green belt.

It is true that building houses affects local environments (which is why we have all those rules about drainage, trees, bats, badgers, birds, beetles and flowers) but suburban development doesn’t have to be net negative for biodiversity. We can deliver better environmental outcomes from suburban development without compromising on the need for those new suburbs. The truth, however, is that no forecasts of housing demand, no OANs system, no “mutant algorithm”, results in the concreting over of the green belt. The absolute worst outcome suggests 5% of that green belt being *lost* and the reality would be around 1%.

Opposition to new housing on environmental grounds is entirely specious, there is no quantifiable environmental impact from housing development. And, if the local planning is done right, important things like ancient woodland, chalk streams and ancient archaeology can be protected. Those delightful old villages and towns can benefit from conservation areas, important scenery and vital ecology will get guarded by plans, all without the need to stop a single house being built.

“Well, if we don’t need much land to build the houses, let’s use the brownfield land”. So goes the response to all this explanation about how we can deliver on housing demand without concreting over England. The problem is that a lot of that brownfield land is in places people don’t want to live (those essentially valueless sites in inner city Bradford) and, even when the reuse of land is proposed, the NIMBYs are there with arguments about urban open space, ‘green lungs’ and so forth. Whether it’s underused former garage sites, old bus stations or the remnants of post-WWII slum clearance, local NIMBYs are there with there banners campaigning to stop new housing on brownfield sites because of a mulberry bush or a poplar tree. There’s even one campaign based on the apparent environmental and historical significance of some old sewage works.

So given that what NIMBYs like Ros Coward want is BANANAs (*build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone*), the campaigners need a different argument. And, once again there are some convenient folk who will tell you that the housing crisis isn’t about lack of housing but about the distribution of housing assets. Others will engage in complicated and convoluted arguments to show how if we forced people who only use one bedroom in a three-bedroom house to downsize then there’d be plenty. Another set of experts will tell us that the problem is empty homes, foreigners buying luxury flats or rich Londoners buying second homes. And then there are housing charities like Shelter and the housing professionals’ association, the Chartered Institute of Housing who say that the problem isn’t planning but rather that government isn’t giving councils and housing associations enough money to build new social homes. Of course, the NIMBYs will oppose those social homes too if they’re proposed for one of those brownfield sites with a tree.

The commonest argument from NIMBYs now is that suburban development (or luxury flats if you’re in the city) is the wrong housing in the wrong place. How can building three- and four-bedroom detached houses in Surbiton or Sutton Coldfield solve the housing crisis? Look at those housing waiting lists, those people can’t afford the prices for that suburban housing, it’s just developers being greedy. What we need is new council houses to replace the right-to-buy and these will, of course, be built on those brownfield sites in poor inner-city areas (so as not to risk smelly oiks arriving in our nice semi-rural suburb with their crime and their noise).

Meanwhile, the people who really do need better housing – tens of thousands of renters in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Oxford, and Bristol – don’t get what they want. If Shelter and the CIH had their way those renters would still be renters, just renting from the council rather than a private landlord. I’m sure that, while some would be happy with this (not least because the rent would be subsidised), it isn’t the home ownership that most aspire to. That will only come if you build a lot more suburban housing, places where they can do what their parents and grandparents did – settle down in a decent house with a garage and a garden to raise a family.

Britain’s housing crisis is a huge challenge and planning reform is one way to meet that challenge. We probably need to build 3 million new homes across all tenures to catch up with five decades of not building enough new homes and to meet emerging demand from new household formation and immigration. This is not a small order, and it cannot be done without making changes – painful ones for some people – to the planning system. Alongside planning change, we also need leasehold reform, better protection for private renters, stronger environment health enforcement, and new investment in social housing. But getting the land supply for at least 3 million homes should be the priority. If we do this in a way that meets suburban expectations, family formation and new working practices as well as economic development then one of the biggest drags on our economy and society is removed.

There is no good argument at the national level for the NIMBY position that meeting this need for homes can be met without increasing land availability in places people can access the jobs, schools, and leisure they demand. Getting that land allocation agreed needs a strategic national view and the willingness of local neighbourhoods to engage with the process of making plans for housing and associated infrastructure. Instead of simply defending a failed system, perhaps we should be talking about how to balance the interests of local communities and the urgent need to provide the homes for current and emerging generations. NIMBYs argue that the planning system works, that new housing is an environmental threat, that there is sufficient land supply, and that reform means the wrong homes in the wrong places. They are wrong in each case but too few people are saying that we can deliver for local communities – schools, health, businesses, active travel, public transport – and plan for the 3 million new homes we need to resolve our housing crisis.

Planning reform is not a threat to the environment, does not undermine community cohesion or infrastructure, and does not reduce local democracy. Done right it allows a more sustainable system involving more people and more communities in the planning process. Instead of just objecting to reform, let’s work to get the best possible system given competing priorities and demands.

I fear though that, in the end, NIMBYs gonna NIMBY.

Addendum: I've been asked what we should do with those value-free inner city sites in Bradford. If we are taking green space elsewhere the answer is to green them. I did a blog post setting out how this might work a while back - link here